Oh, Mercy and me.

I told this story on Twitter yesterday, in 52 tweets. Some folks were touched by it. So here it is, in paragraph form, with very little changed.

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I don’t think I told this before. It’s a story about Bob Dylan’s music & me. And the kindness of a woman (not that type of kindness). And has nothing to do with politics, except that it involves a song about politics. It’s really about the romance of being young, and believing very much in the transformative power of music.

So this is 1988/9. I’m working at Elektra Records. Have been sent west to oversee the making of Faster Pussycat’s next album. This story is not about Faster Pussycat. Even though I had a fascinating time engaging with them and learned a ton about identity and point of view by watching Taime Downe work.

ANYWAY…

While in LA, I worked down the hall from Carole Childs, who was…1) A great person to learn from, smart, kind, wise, 2) a high level creative exec who made albums for a living and…3)was also in a long time romantic relationship with Bob Dylan at the time.

Bob Dylan was, and remains, essentially my favorite living artist of any kind. (I thought of this last night as Amy and I drove to pick up our son at the airport. I wanted to put on a perfect album).

So, while Carole and I were in LA, Bob was working on Oh, Mercy down in New Orleans with Daniel Lanois. I was 22 years old when this all takes place. And was very up front about my love of, and knowledge of, Dylan’s work. At the time, Dylan was in a lower ebb of cultural relevance. He was still enormously relevant, but not so much with the under 30 crowd.

Carole said it was cool that I, at that age, was a Dylan head. She thought he was making an important album, maybe his most significant in years, and, although she wasn’t working with him officially, she was getting tapes daily from the studio, and Bob was calling her to ask for guidance. I know this because I would sit in her office and hear her side of the calls.

When the calls would end, she’d say, “Bobby doesn’t have any idea how good this record can be. And then she’d say, “wanna hear a song?”

First one she played me was Ring Them Bells. Then What Was It You Wanted. Then Disease of Conceit. Then Man In The Long Black Coat None of these were finished recordings. She’s ask my opinion, which was, Holy Shit! And then she’d ask me detailed questions. What I didn;t know was she was then telling Bob that there was this kid who loved the music.

See, she and Lanois were trying to convince Bob that the record was special and he could connect with a more current audience. So she would put her REAL AND SMART OPINIONS in my mouth, as though the kid said them.

*It’s important to note: I contributed nothing. Said nothing of value. Carole said a bunch of brilliant stuff. Essentially, she and Lanois wanted Bob to sing vocals a second time to nail them. Eventually, he did.

They finished the album. I stopped getting to hear stuff.

Until: one night, late, she called me into her office. Had me shut the door, said, “we are having a hard time sequencing the record. I want you to listen and tell me what you think of this sequence. But,” she said, “no one can know you have the tape. No one in the world has it. There are no copies. His own label doesn’t have it. And,” she said (this is before the Internet, so there are no files) “You cannot make a copy. Cannot play it for a friend. I need your word.”

I shook on it. And left with the only copy of Oh, Mercy anyone had who wasn’t in the studio with Bob and Lanois.

But I had a roommate. So couldn’t play it at the apartment. I decided to drive to Santa Barbara and back, on US1, all night long, listening in the car.

This was a rented Ford Mustang convertible.

So that’s what I did. And the sequence didn’t need any input from me or Carole or anyone. It was the album you know.

I will never forget the car filling with the sounds of Political World. It was jaw dropping. I hadn’t heard that song before.
(I still think that’s the most relevant and important song there is right now).

I drove and drove and let the album become a part of me. Imagine those haunted New Orleans sounds drenched in Lanois ambience, and only you and the night sky and the Pacific Ocean on your left.

Or right, on the way back.

I have always thought it’s one of the best albums ever made.

And that night remains singular to me. Because it was as if Bob, who had no clue who I was, and never really would, was only singing to me.

Last night, driving to the airport, Amy and I put it on, and this all came flooding back.

As shitty as the world sometimes is, great art, art like Bob Dylan’s on Oh, Mercy, reminds me what we’re capable of. As does the kindness Carole showed me. Because that’s what was really going on.

I was a boy, alone in Los Angeles, in a grownups job. And she saw that, and decided to give me the gift of pretending I was helping. And then the gift of that all night drive, just me and Bob, and the sky and those songs.

And I will always be grateful, and try to pass it on. And I will always listen to Oh, Mercy and remember all of this, warmly, and, I hope, with some sense of grace for a moment in time that changed me, in a wonderful way.

Brief thoughts of Lou Reed on his 75th

Lou Reed would’ve been 75 today. I can still remember sitting in the great Bruce Harris’ office at RCA records, in 1984 or 1985–I was interning for the summer–talking about guitarists. I was trying to explain to him why Yngwie Malmsteen was a great player when Bruce help up a hand. Want to hear great fucking guitar playing? And perfect words? Listen to this! And he put on Vicious. “That’s Mick Ronson playing with Lou Reed.” I was blown back in my chair. It was the perfect moment for Lou to come into my life. The words just cut through me. I went, that day, and got all the albums. And listened to them closely for the rest of that summer. Then got all the Velvet’s records. Memorized those. When Mistrial came out, I dove right in. Went to see him live. When New York came out 5 years later, I was ready for it in every way, and it instantly and forever became one of the most important albums in my life, one I have never gone three weeks without listening to since.
I know Lou was a difficult cat. I met him once, shook his hand, got nothing from him at all. But the songs and records have given me everything. I would say, lifetime, I have listened to Bob Dylan the most, then rem, Bruce and Lou. (Jason Isbell is fast catching up, but that’s a different post at a different time). Each of those artists has felt like a close friend, like a shoulder, like a teacher.
As a writer, Lou’s economy of words, his bite, his willingness to lose you because he knows he’ll get you back, has been a constant inspiration.
He would’ve turned 75 today.
Fuck. I hate when the greats pass on.
Bruce Harris is gone too, much too young, but I am forever grateful for Vicious and all it’s given me since.
Happy Birthday, Lou.

Take Yer Shirt Off!!!! Come on, Take It Off!

So I’m standing on the putting green this morning, about to tee off, when one of the guys in my foursome steps up to me, and, with a conspiratorial air, says: “Hey, we should get up a collection to raise enough money to get that Wendy Rhoades on your show to take off her shirt!”
It takes me a moment or two to process what he’s said. To actually absorb and make sense of the words that just came from this grown man’s mouth. This fellow isn’t some internet troll. He’s not a seventeen year-old high school junior looking for something to say. This is a peer of mine, in a sense—a fifty-one year old business man with high schoolers of his own.
I imagine he expected to get a smile out of me, or the old wink wink nudge nudge. Or maybe he figured I’d come back with an even racier comment of my own, and we’d end up arm in arm, just a couple of golfers talking smack about women as we walked to the first tee.
Instead, remembering the promise I made to myself when I wrote this piece two years back, I say the following: “That’s why I love country clubs. There’s nothing like some casual misogyny first thing on a Sunday morning. The actress who plays Wendy Rhoades, Maggie Siff, is a good friend of mine and a coworker. She’s a brilliant actress and woman. You should know it’s not okay to say something like that.”
I was met with silence. And then a half-chuckle. And then more silence, and we walked to the tee to play our round. Eventually, I made a joke about someone’s golf handicap, and the rest of the round went off without incident.
The most troubling part of this, to me, is that the man who said it isn’t a bad person. By that, I mean, he’s kind-hearted, good to his family, easy to smile. And he’s not an outlier. That comment or one just like it must be made on every golf course and basketball court and tennis court on a daily basis. And it’s this that troubles me: no one treats it like a big deal. In fact, my rebuke to him was probably much more a subject of conversation after the round, once I’d left. I can hear them, “Koppelman has a stick up his ass. Fucking Hollywood liberal. So, don’t play golf at a country club.”
This is all fine with me. I’m an adult. I can handle the cost of my words. But I really can’t handle anymore the easy and glib way in which men talk about women. Had he merely commented on Maggie’s beauty, or even if he’d said he wished he could get with her, I’d have told him no chance, but I wouldn’t have held it against him. Or us. But when you add in that this man proposed, as a joke, raising a fund whose purpose would be to lift her blouse, the entire exchange reaches the land of the disgusting, the cruel, the clueless.
And to me, it explains much of Donald Trump’s appeal. White men want a world wherein they are unchallenged, can buy any woman they want, can, out of the corner of their mouths, reduce women to objects whose breasts will be made accessible for viewing just as soon as a reasonable price is agreed upon.
As a white man, I broke the rules today. I refused to laugh along. I said something. But what I know is, I accomplished absolutely nothing except making myself feel better for about five minutes. After which, I have mostly just felt sad. The gulf is so huge. The misunderstandings so great. The chasm not one that can be crossed quickly, easily or without massive structural change. There’s no way that the gentleman who wants to pay to see Maggie Siff’s breasts has any idea why I got upset, why his expression of this desire is harmful, what it perpetuates. And I am certain that even if he were forced to sit in a seminar, he’d come out exactly as wrongheaded as when he went in.
The world he and I live in was built for us by people like us. It was protected for us by people like us. It is being guarded, even now, by people like us.
I guess the only solace I take is this: I found myself actually shocked to hear those words. That may be because I mostly spend my time with artists and writers and creators. Or it may be because I live on the ultra liberal Upper West Side of Manhattan. But it’s something. And it’s pretty much all I can hold onto now, while I wait for my generation of men to change or die off, and for the generations that follow us to find a way to be better.

REM Albums ranking

Rem is my favorite band of all time. As such, I get asked for my official rem album rankings from time to time. So here, for all time, is the list. This list does not merely represent my opinion. It is, in fact, definitive.

Automatic For The People
Murmur
Reckoning
Life’s Rich Pageant
Out Of Time
Document
Chronic Town
Live At Olympia
Fables
Green
Dead Letter Office
Accelerate
Around The Sun
Monster
New Adventures
Up
Reveal
Collapse Into Now

Drinkin’ Songs

I tell folks to make stuff and share it. It’s scary as hell to share sometimes. But, in the end, worth it. So here goes.

This is a song I wrote with Michael McDermott. Adam Fears was kind enough to sing it. Drinkin’ Songs

And here’s one I wrote myself. Once again, Adam sings. Sometimes I Miss That Boy

James Blake and Domestic Terrorism, NYPD Style

I try not to be judgmental. But make no mistake; if you are talking about anything other than the James Blake video this week, I am judging you. Harshly. As a white male in his late 40s, I have no special standing to talk about Blake, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, racial profiling, any of it. I’ve never faced the business end of a policeman’s sap, never been thrown to the ground, cuffed or profiled in a way that demeaned me. Instead, police have been exceedingly nice and gracious to me every time I have ever interacted with them.

So in a sense, I have no unique perch from which to comment. But. As an American and a New Yorker, I have all the standing in the world; in truth, I have a mandate to talk about it. Because there, on that video, is absolute evidence that I am helping to finance and support a violent, racist regime of terror. Yes. Terror. I use the word advisedly, understanding exactly how much of a jolt it carries.

Imagine being a Black male in his early thirties, walking alone, wearing a hoodie—a four hundred dollar Vince hoodie even—on West Sixty-Seventh Street. Suddenly, you see a woman pointing down the street, and next to her, two policemen, guns at the ready. What emotion do you think you would feel? I’ll tell you—terror. And it would be justified.

In James Blake we have, it seems to me, the most useful tool yet with which to tell the story. And not just because Blake is a Harvard educated millionaire tennis player. But because this Harvard educated millionaire tennis player did not resist arrest, was not read his rights, was not even spoken to—he was just taken to the ground, harshly, forcefully, and cuffed. He was stripped of his freedom.

I watch the tape, and I am sickened. Heartbroken. I am heartbroken for James Blake and for all the Black men who have been treated like that without recourse, without video, without even the remotest chance that anyone in the system would believe them. I am heartbroken that we live in a city and country whose citizens know, at some deep cellular level, this happens, time and again to Black men in every city and state, yet who live in some kind of denial about it, barely letting it register as a conscious thought.

And I am heartbroken because I don’t understand how to affect change. I don’t even really believe that it can change. But it has to, somehow.

Blake himself has been heroic in his response, measured, strong, generous. I don’t think I’d be any of those if it were me tossed to the concrete like a felon.

Perhaps the fact that it has never happened to me is the very reason I can write about it, talk about it. Part of me believes that if I had been a victim like Blake or one of the countless others, I’d be out there on the streets in the shadow of this incident with a heavy club or gun of my own, ready to mete out my own brand of revenge as justice. Or maybe I’d just give up, the weight of all of it too much, and something in me would just die.

The Mayor and Police Commissioner have apologized, have offered to meet with him. I hope that happens. And I hope he tells them that it is not enough. I hope he tells them that it can’t go on, that this dehumanizing, institutional cruelty must end now.

I can hear their response, can’t you? That this was one bad cop, that it was all a misunderstanding, that a new sensitivity is aborning in the wake of this action. I can also hear how tinny it will sound, how empty, how cold. It’s getting late, too late, really, for this canned answer to still be coming off spokesman’s lips.

I try not to be judgmental. But I try harder to be human. And to see the humanity in others. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of the NYPD that they try it too, now, before it gets even later.

Notes, Belonging and Birbiglia

This began as a journal fragment. I cleaned it up, added a few things, took out the names, because I wanted to share it.

Aug. 2, 2014

Last night, I grabbed the 2, then the F down to Mike Birbiglia’s house in Brooklyn, where he and a bunch of his friends read Mike’s new screenplay aloud. As I set off for his place, I was miserable; I knew the subway ride was going to be long, and the night was–it was an NYC August special, hot, rainy, muggy–the worst subway weather imaginable. I also knew my wife and teenage kids were home and available to hang out, and I was tired from a long week, so, even though I am a huge fan of Birbigs’, I wanted to bail.
But when another working writer, a peer, one you respect, asks you to listen to his script, you go and listen to his script.
Man, was I glad that I didn’t bail. The script was strong—funny, smart, tender. And Birbigs’s friends, some famous actors, a few sketch comics, a radio host, were excellent performing the parts. They really brought the characters and situations to life.
That was great. But it wasn’t the thing that really made heading down there worthwhile. What made the night memorable was the feeling in the room, the way these artists came together, and the spirit in which they did, to help another artist gain perspective on his work. .
Looking around the room, at the performers but also at others, directors, actors, podcasters, teachers, poets, there to listen, I realized: I belong to this tribe. These were my people. They were creators, risk takers. And they were so generous in the way they approached the process.
Having been on Birbiglia’s side of a table read, I know how intense, nauseated and panicked you can feel as your screenplay is about to be exposed. As a screenwriter, you never feel as naked as you do when it’s being read aloud for the first time, without the benefit of a musical score, tight editing and sound effects to help it along. And it can be tense for the actors too–reading something they haven’t had time to prepare, trying to inhabit the essence of characters they haven’t had the chance to think about.
But the vibe in the room wasn’t tense at all. It was comfortable. No one was competing with anyone else. No one was judging anyone else. And then, at the end, I watched as Mike invited everyone there to talk to him about the script, about how he could make it better, about what worked and what didn’t work. He was so calm, almost serene, his ego very carefully put away.
By welcoming the criticism, by the warmth of his manner, Mike created the possibility that he would actually get honest feedback. Everyone saw that he wasn’t threatened, that he wouldn’t bite back if someone suggested a cut or told him there was a part of a scene they didn’t understand.
As a result, there was a kind of magic in the way we all communicated, honestly but with respect, love even, and above all, empathy.
In Hollywood, the note-giving process is rarely like this. It is freighted with so much other junk, possessiveness, power issues, the threat of one of us losing his job, that almost nobody gives or receives a note without some rancor creeping in. Mistrust is the real lingua franca of the back and forth between execs and writers in the notes game because there appears to be little reward for telling the truth. “Listen to the notes and tell them you’ll think about it,” an agent might say. “Hey,” a studio boss might tell a creative exec, “get her through the next pass quickly, and let’s have a closer lined up to follow.”
But last night at Birbiglia’s, the exchange of meaningful ideas on an already high-quality script, had nothing in common with that.
I spent years as a blocked writer. And like most blocked writers, a ton of that had to do with criticism, I’m sure, with my own perfectionism, with my fear that I was without talent, without that essential, ineffable gift real artists have.
Looking around the room at the collection of real artists, the brutal subway ride receded completely. I knew that all these folks had overcome some version of what I’d overcome. They had all felt like frauds at one point or another, had all wanted to be better than they were, had all battled the urge to quit, live a normal life, hide the best of themselves. And somehow, they were able to fight it, to push through, to live this life, the life that had them at Birbiglia’s house, in this wonderful creative circle, helping another artist, just like them, to get the most out of himself that he possibly could.
When I was first trying to write every day, when each sentence felt like a war, sometimes I’d dream that I’d be a part of a community like this. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, didn’t have any evidence it existed, but I knew I needed to find it. Riding home from Mike’s house, I smiled and thought that each step along the way, each day I managed to put something on paper, each rejection I absorbed, was my passport, the very thing that allowed me to be welcomed in, the very thing that confirmed I belonged.